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Why are Africans making up fake Robert Mugabe quotes?

Fake quotes misattributed to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe have gone viral across the Africa. Hundreds of them are shared on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and on messaging apps like WhatsApp every day. The meme has assumed a life of its own. But what what does the meme mean for how Africans see “Uncle Bob”?

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is the man of the moment. Make that the meme of the moment. Quotes misattributed to the only head of state Zimbabweans have known for the last 36 years have been popping up all over the place. He seems to have spouted out more wisdom than all the ancient sages combined.

Mugabe admirers, or mischief-makers?

The mind hive of the Internet has turned Mugabe into an all-knowing, all seeing, wisecracking intellectual savant in his dotage. Think Malcolm X meets Richard Pryor. Fake quotes attributed to the 92-year-old cover the gamut, from his thoughts on hygiene, to dating to – believe it or not – handy tips on sexual role-play in a marriage. It goes without saying, all the quotes are either misattributed or simply made up by an online army of well-meaning but mischievous admirers. Here’s a sampling:

https://twitter.com/_Abdulhakim_a/status/728916727015346176

It goes without saying, all the quotes are either misattributed or simply made up by an online army of well-meaning but mischievous admirers

The fake Mugabe quotes haven’t fooled everyone. Though many online are convinced that the quotes are just another illustration of Mugabe’s inexhaustible wisdom and knack for comedy, others see right through meme.

The uncritical readiness to accept as true every absurd statement attributed to Mugabe has had some real world consequences. Last year, the New York Times – no less! – had to make an embarrassing correction after its Pulitzer-winning East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman used a fake Mugabe quote concocted by a local blog in a piece about rampant corruption in the Kenyan government.

Gettleman was contrite.

In hindsight, perhaps the NYT bureau chief needn’t have been so apologetic since many Kenyans had also been taken in by the made up Mugabe quote. Furious, they started a Twitter pile-on against Zimbabwe that only fizzled out after the quote was confirmed as fake.

Reasons behind Mugabe misquotes

What does the proliferation of the bogus Mugabe quotes say about the way many Africans see him? Oddly enough, it probably speaks to the respect and affection many – especially young Africans – have for Mugabe. For them, he’s a relic of the old world, an independence hero who refuses to go gently into that good night. It’s an homage to “Uncle Bob”. A meme that refuses to play by the rules, for a man who made up his own. But, to repurpose Sigmund Freud, sometimes a fake quote is just a fake quote. It could all be in the name of good fun and nothing more.

In the meantime, here are some words to live by.

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